The Man Within My Head

It’s difficult for an American to read Graham Greene without feeling insufficiently skeptical of the world. Compared to his world-weary Brits, we’re such Pollyannas! We keep believing, more or less, in our families and our friends and even, fitfully, our country. Almost as though we’re constitutionally resistant to disenchantment, we’re cheerfully undefended against the countless layers of darkness that were Greene’s chosen realm to dwell in and write about.
That’s why it’s particularly enlightening, and only somewhat vexing, to read about Greene from a lifelong devotee whose background is both British and American. Pico Iyer, who has accumulated an increasingly complex and questioning body of writing himself, and who spent a good portion of his youth commuting between frigid boarding schools in England and the incessantly sunny climes of his Los Angeles-based parents, writes of the man in his head with the charged perception of a long-lost son. Could he have chosen a more self-contradictory, shadowy father figure?

As Iyer puts it, Greene is “the patron saint of the foreigner alone, drifting between certainties [whose] territory is the small apartment in the very foreign town, the passion that is temporary, the border crossing that seems the perfect home for the man who prays to a God he’s not sure he believes in.” Noir-ish descendant of Somerset Maugham and antecedent of John le Carré, Greene habitually sets his scenes in treacherous, morally murky circumstances. Men and women are usually at odds — “they don’t share the same anxieties” — with “identities they change at every moment and no real friend or family to hold them to their word.” Everyone is on the run, not least of all from themselves.

Quite a bloke Iyer has chosen to be obsessed with: tortured Catholic, fugitive husband and father, rumored spy, over-punctilious man of probing conscience who was capable of disloyalties of every stripe. Greene cannot write a page without conveying the ever-mutable doubleness of things, and Iyer’s dual vantage, having grown up on both sides of the pond, positions him well to generate brilliant insights like the following three:

All Greene’s work is about the conundrum of feeling someone else’s position too acutely, to the point of not being able to hear, or act on, one’s own. And that natural sympathy for the other’s point of view is made more agonized…because one can have so little faith in oneself. Greene could write with harrowing compassion for every character except the one who might be taken as Graham Greene.

Greene could not bring himself to believe in God and so, by his own lights, he was cursed. But he could not entirely believe in himself or his own positions, including his arguments against God, and so there was always a small chink of hope.

Greene’s great theme was always innocence, if only because he could never disguise how much he missed it…. None of the characters was entirely cynical, able to write off all belief, and yet none of them can be a simple believer, either. They’re all trembling in the balance.

All of these observations, and a lot more besides, go a long way toward nailing down an elusive subject as precisely as anyone has — a deep deconstruction of one of modern lit’s most puzzling specimens. Where Iyer gets in trouble is when he over-identifies with his subject, veering a bit too far out of his way to underscore a (quasi-mystical?) connection between them. Even when some of the parallels do seem eerie — both watched their homes burn down, both had chance encounters with bishops in southern Bolivia, and so forth — ultimately these coincidences prove less nourishing for the reader than they seem to be for the author. Why force parallels when each life is more than riveting in its own right?   

Certainly Iyer’s is turning out to be. He has stockpiled enough color from forays in Bangkok, Bhutan, and Belgravia — to choose just the second letter of the alphabet — to never again need to mix it up with Greene. Of particular fascination is the material he draws upon from his early English boarding school years: “Every morning, at 6:45, a white-coated retainer of sorts, Mr. Gower, knocked on each door, and opened it a crack — “Morn, sir!” — and then we trudged down the icy stone spiral staircase to where a vat of tea and our copies of The Times awaited us.” Reconciling this to life in a California that had “exiled history” and “didn’t know what to do with the dark” gives the writer a privileged perspective on two worlds — shuttling back and forth between “unquiet Englishmen who were often more compassionate than they let on and quiet Americans who were not quite so innocent as they liked to seem.”

As long as the author keeps producing sentences of this caliber, it is entirely possible to imagine a younger writer thirty years hence writing a book about the man in his head — one with the unlikely name of Pico Iyer. Let’s hope it’s half as smart and sharp as this one, and just a touch less over-identifying.